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Fractured Results and Reforms

Omkar Goswami


While sitting to write this article on the last day of the Great Indian Electoral Tourney, I am inundated by huge headlines: “Mother of all battles today to decide next govt.” prints The Indian Express; “Final Over, And It’s Still Wide Open” screams The Times of India; “Last Call, Gentlemen” says The Economic Times using a metaphor of betting; “Power women key in last act” says Hindustan Times, referring to Maya, Jaya, Mamata and Uma.


Without the “wisdom” of the last set of exit poll results — these will be broadcast several hours after E-mailing this piece to the newspaper — there seems to be four  possible outcomes that matter. According to most of our part-time psephologists (election forecasting can’t be a full-time profession, even in India), the least likely result is that of the NDA securing over 272 Lok Sabha seats. Equally improbable is that of the Congress and its pre-poll allies coming within striking distance of forming government, or winning 255-odd seats. The two more likely outcomes are supposed to be the NDA either securing 260-265 seats, or 240-245 seats. If the former, then the NDA should surely form the government with little effort — because 12 to 15 MPs will gladly want to be in power. The real horse trading will start if BJP and its allies get around 240-245 seats. Securing the support of 35 MPs will be no joke. “Who will bid what for whom” shall begin in dead earnest. From what I have heard, the BJP and the Congress have kept the lines of finance well oiled for this contingency.


Why has every national election since 1991 delivered fractured mandates? Why have we not seen a national party such as the Congress or the BJP secure the simple majority on its own? Is this going to be the fact of electoral and political life of India? And what will coalition governments mean for the reform process?


Since Annadurai’s successful challenge to the Congress in the 1960s, a number of states have developed strong regional parties. For the last two decades, Tamil Nadu, has been a straight fight between DMK and AIADMK. Despite the odd seat like Mayiladuthurai, which Mani Shankar Aiyar will probably win yet again, the Congress has virtually abdicated Tamil Nadu to the two big regional parties. It has done likewise in West Bengal, where a de facto regional party called the CPI-M is, at best, mildly challenged by another local entity called Trinamool Congress. Shiv Sena is a force to reckon with in Maharashtra. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have taken away much of Congress’s mass appeal in Uttar Pradesh. Once the only party worth the name in Bihar, the Congress today survives on the largesse of Laloo. The TDP have resolutely kept the Congress out of its traditional bastions in Andhra Pradesh. If this changes in 2004 — as the exit polls suggest — then it will be the first time that the Congress will be back in power since the first win of N.T. Rama Rao.           


No doubt, the BJP has made substantial progress over the years, and become more than a Hindi-speaking, traders’ supported cow-belt party. If exit polls are any guide, then BJP may secure a first by winning most of the Karnataka Lok Sabha seats. Even so, it is far away from mustering the kind of broad-based support it needs to form the national government on its own.


Why do we have such fractured mandates? I think there are two reasons. First, the long-standing, historically strong national-level party — the Congress — has steadily abdicated its regional responsibilities. Quite honestly, the Congress has given up the fight, and will not do what is needed to rebuild the organisation at the grass root level. Organisationally, it is virtually a zero in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, UP, and the entire North-East. Its cadre has witnessed decimation in impregnable bastions such Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh,  Rajasthan and Gujarat. Today, in states where it traditionally ruled the roost, the grand old party gladly accepts crumbs offered by regional players. Over thirty years of kow-towing to the omniscient “High Command”, and the “Cut each of them to size to rule” policy that was perfected by Indira Gandhi and then adopted by her next generation have taken their toll.


The second reason is that regional issues have become increasingly important. Water, electricity, infrastructure, finances, agriculture — all these are far more relevant today than three decades ago. Local leaders have brilliantly exploited these issues within a powerful framework of “regional pride” and “regional denigration”. Telugu pride, Marathi pride, Tamil pride, Oriya pride and the anger of  “being short-changed in by the Centre” are all manifestations of this pride/belittling play. With Congress chief ministers being more worried about the “High Command” than the nitty-gritty of local governance, it is not surprising that regional parties have become forces to reckon with.   


Since both BJP and Congress realise that winning national elections every five years or less requires significant pre-poll alliances, it is unlikely that either party will spend the time, resources and effort needed to build the kind of grass-root based organisation needed to win elections on their own. Here, BJP may be a bit more inclined to building such a network; the Congress just doesn’t seem to have the energy or the inclination. Therefore, I think that coalitions will rule the roost for quite a while; the Congress will be more dependent on coalitions if it were to form national government; and while BJP may work at strengthening their rank-and-file, it will take at least one more Lok Sabha election before it can hope to make 272 on its own.


What does the continuing prospect of coalition governments mean for economic reforms? It would depend upon the composition the coalition. If either the BJP or the Congress were to do so well as to create a coalition on their terms, then we can expect a pro-reform government that works. However, if either the BJP and its pre-poll allies or the Congress and its allies fall significantly short of 272, then they will have to beg rag-tag parties to join — each of which will extract their pound of flesh not only at the beginning but throughout the tenure of governance. If that were to happen, it would be the beginning of the end of reforms. In three days we will know which way we are heading.


Published: Financial Express, May 2004


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